CHICAGO -- After watching helplessly the previous 22 games -- 15 of which his Bulls lost, many in gut-wrenching fashion -- Tyrus Thomas was thrilled to be back on the court, helping Chicago build and protect a lead.
Thomas had 21 points on 10 for 17 shooting, nine rebounds and two blocked shots in a 96-85 victory over the New Orleans Hornets on Saturday night.
"It felt like the first day of school all day," said Thomas, who had been out since Nov. 6 with a broken left forearm. "I had a new backpack, supplies, everything. It was great."
The game capped a wild week in which the Bulls lost to Sacramento after blowing a 35-point lead, lost at New York after almost rallying from a 22-point deficit and dealt with questions about coach Vinny Del Negro's job security.
"You have to learn from your mistakes but stay positive," said Joakim Noah, who had 17 points and 18 rebounds as the Bulls outscored the Hornets 54-16 inside. "It just feels good right now to get a 'W' -- and to win by a big margin, which we hadn't done in a long time."
After Thomas and Noah sparked a 42-13 surge that turned an 11-point, second-quarter deficit into a 73-55 lead late in the third, Del Negro played Thomas for the entire fourth period.
The athletic, fourth-season forward, who has been in and out of Del Negro's doghouse during the last year, responded with six points, two rebounds and boundless energy as the Bulls held on.
"He got a little winded but ... it was tough to take him out because he was so productive," the coach said. "You saw what his athleticism does for us."
The previous seven weeks, Thomas saw a promising season turn bad, as the Bulls absorbed numerous lopsided losses and late meltdowns.
"It's hard to sit and watch," he said, "especially when your team's struggling."
Devin Brown scored all of his 22 points in the first half for New Orleans, which had only nine third-quarter points and fell to 2-12 on the road.
Brown's sixth 3-pointer in six attempts put New Orleans up 42-31 and got the United Center crowd groaning. The Bulls then started their extended run, with Noah getting 10 points and 10 rebounds, and Brown ended up missing the only 3-pointer he took the rest of the way.
"They were having to help defensively because [Chris Paul] gets in the lane," Brown said. "In the second half, they made an adjustment and were staying home, so those same shots just weren't there."
And this time, once the Bulls got their lead, they didn't fold. After the Hornets' Darren Collison scored to make it 94-85 with 1:30 to play, Noah had a rebound basket and then blocked Collison's layup, ending all hope of a New Orleans comeback.
"When we got the lead, I knew you guys were thinking about that," Luol Deng told reporters. "I thought we did a good job even though at times we panicked a little bit."
Paul, who had averaged 24.3 points and 10.7 assists in seven career games against the Bulls, had 15 points and seven assists Saturday.
"I can't let us come out that sluggish [in the second half]," Paul said. "That third quarter was just bad. What was the score, 23-9? That's unacceptable, especially on the road. It's my responsibility."
Deng scored 12, snapping his string of 20-point games at five. ... Among those who have played in at least 20 games, Noah is the only NBA player to have pulled down at least seven rebounds in every game. ... The Hornets had been 6-0 when Brown scored 11 or more points.
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